Improving early childhood learning with better data

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By Elliot Regenstein

Education reformers are committed to educational opportunities that provide upward mobility for the children who need it most. Early learning has been shown to improve long-term student outcomes, especially for the most vulnerable, so it should be a key component of that strategy—but it won’t be if we don’t even know which kids are having which early learning experiences, let alone what long-term effects those experiences are having. For states to effectively manage high-quality early learning requires data, and accordingly a comprehensive education reform agenda should include advocating for states to build and utilize better early childhood data systems.

Reformers know that high quality doesn’t happen automatically at any level of education. And just as in K–12, in early learning good information is key to great teaching and measuring impacts. So, education reformers, can you answer the following questions about early learning in your state?

  • Are there kids enrolled in both Head Start and state preschool? And how many of those kids are also enrolled in a child care program?
  • How does enrolling in more than one of those programs impact long-term outcomes?
  • Many states are measuring the quality of early learning programs, including Head Start, preschool, and child care—which kids are getting access to the highest quality programs, and how does the quality of a child’s early learning experience impact long-term outcomes?
  • With chronic absenteeism about to be a meaningful factor in many state ESSA accountability plans, what’s the relationship between chronic absenteeism in early learning and in K–12?

Unfortunately most states don’t have the data to provide answers to those questions, or to many of the other important questions about the implementation and effect of early learning. In all but a handful of states it’s impossible to even get an accurate count of how many kids are enrolled in both preschool and child care, and those are both state-run programs (unlike Head Start). When states can’t provide complete and accurate data about early learning, it’s extremely difficult to quantify the impact of those early experiences over the long term.

Early learning data are more complicated than K–12 data because the programs are typically housed across multiple state agencies. Having good data therefore requires linking multiple agency systems, and then connecting that information to K–12 data. If you’re now thinking, wow, that sounds like an incredibly discouraging bureaucratic nightmare—well, guess what, that’s what everybody thinks, which is often why people try to avoid any involvement in these kinds of projects. But this is an issue whose bark is far worse than its bite, and in fact working on state early learning data systems can be both invigorating and rewarding if you do it right.

In working toward better early childhood data, effective advocates know that you have to start with the “why” and create an appetite for better data among key stakeholders. This part should be energizing, because there’s so much we don’t know about what’s going on out there—and there will be plenty of voices in the advocacy and research communities whose curiosity will drive them to ask for better data.

Succeeding at the “why” conversation gets you to the more challenging work of “how,” which does in fact require navigating the complexities of bringing together multiple agencies with different mandates. Among other things, this requires supporting multiple agency legal offices to forge interagency agreements; persuading federally-funded Head Start programs that it’s to their benefit to be part of a state system; and ensuring that there’s actually capacity to use data at the state and local level. These may not be easy tasks but they are well within the competency of most education reformers, and a handful of states have already made meaningful progress in these areas.

To help education reformers (and others) navigate this territory, we at the Ounce of Prevention Fund have published An Unofficial Guide to the Why and How of State Early Childhood Data Systems. Having been at this work for a decade, I can tell you that there’s nothing that will make it super easy. But there’s a lot you can do to make it more fun, or at least more likely to be successful. The publication provides a straightforward roadmap to the process, with specific recommendations on approaches to clearing common roadblocks.

Better data and better early learning have been bipartisan issues where education reformers and school management groups have often found common cause. Maybe in these charged times, working on early childhood data systems can be a unifying effort that brings everybody together. And even if you’re not convinced that this work isn’t going to be the thing that saves our democracy, you can still acknowledge that it’s an important foundational stone of education reform—and given what education reformers have accomplished over the years on topics that are actually far more difficult, there’s no reason that they can’t make headway on this issue, as well.

Elliot Regenstein is the Senior Vice President, Advocacy and Policy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.